From Chinese Punk Rock to Digital Expression: The Work of Feng Jiangzhou

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Digital work of Feng Jiangzhou

Moving his career from punk beginnings to digital installations, Feng Jiangzhou has never allowed himself to commit to one idea for too long. He allows his fears, worries and obsessions to permeate his art in ways most Chinese artists would not consider. He is an artist at the crossroads of post-colonial paths, skipping back between the West and East. As the founder of The Fly, he started Chinese Underground Punk. Now as a multimedia artist he is creating digital experiences from the ground up. This paper will examine not only how he is an important figure in contemporary Chinese music, but also what he story can tell us of a post-colonial Chinese identity. To further establish my point, I will also compare him to artists we have studied in class such as Zhang Yimou and Meng Jinghui.

The Fly's album art gives a quick impression of their aesthetic.

The Fly’s album art gives a quick impression of their “avant-garde” aesthetic.

 

Punk is music of countercultural rebellion and was the first genre to establish a Chinese underground music scene. In China With a Cut, author Jeroen de Kloet attributes Feng to have been a central figure in the “the public birth of underground music”[1] in China when his band the Fly performed with like minded units NO and Zi Yue in 1996. Thus, his band was one of the first to use rock and roll to question all parts of mainstream Chinese culture.

With The Fly, Feng is clearly making a statement of frustration and anger against mainstream Chinese culture of the time. Their music is loud and set out to intentionally assault the audience through their heavy use of noise and dissonance. Feng is known for the vulgarity and obsession with sex in his lyrics that specially “aim to subvert the ideology of poppy”[2] seen in the mainstream. He is also interested in expressing frustrations which are generally not allowed by the Government.

After The Fly disbanded, Feng continued to move on to more experimental styles of expression. His chose to go digital in his pursuit of breakcore, a music similar to punk in its polarizing nature but worlds apart in terms of its aesthetic. Breakcore is known for its high-speed electronic beats, abrasive volume, and extreme intensity. His work culminated in the compilation of a volume he called “Far East Digital Hardcore” that uses this aesthetic to continue to express his frustrations with modern China[3].

His initial forays into digital music set the basis for his current interest in new media art. Together with Rhode Island School of Design-educated Lin Zhang in a group called Sifenlv, Feng is now creating expansive works of art through inventive use of new technologies and software. Paradoxically, as technology is relied upon more and more in the creation of art, the artists build their sense of “ownership” over their art. This is because the use of technology allows the artist to become the director, choreographer, musician, and visual designer simultaneously[4]. Feng Jiangzhou and Lin Zhang are able to enjoy the wide range of control they have over their art and the amount of aesthetic possibilities in which their message can be expressed. Thus, these works can often be intimately individual and thus provide a useful starting point to explore the issue of identity.

Feng’s ability to shift his aesthetic skillfully is well adapted to thisform, in which one piece can have multiple movements and higher level of complexity usually unseen in punk and breakcore. In the piece, Reading Mistakes III, the viewer is presented with an audio/visual experience that speaks to the absurdity of modern life. Actresses wearing various robes comeand go, alternating between sensual gyrations and tormented staggering. The installation in the back either can unite into one projection or divide into three square boxes that show various graphics, ambient designs, and serve to frame the players. Various motifs, such as birds, long rows of identical graphic portrayals of people, and moving highly contrasting lines, are used to create an ambiguity that challenges the viewer.

His earlier obsessions with sex and rebellion remain present but now, Feng is able to show them from a new mature perspective based in metaphor. Feng’s choice to use only women and to have them move in unconventional ways may speak to a struggle to accept his own subconscious fantasies and ruminations. Furthermore, the clone-like renditions that walk across the back represent an ongoing narrative with a struggle with the concept of individuality.

While it may be difficult to take in, in many ways Feng’s visual aesthetics and ability to express the difficulties of modern life are beautiful in places where his earlier work was most vulgar. Additionally, he is now able to incorporate Chinese aesthetics in ways that he would have never considered before. His current work is his most widely accepted yet and is now receiving commissions for installing installations. Always willing to adapt to new circumstances, it is impossible to imagine where his next career will take him.

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Feng’s work has gradually accepted Chinese aesthetics

In order to present a smooth narrative of Feng’s evolution as an artist, I have postponed a number discussion topics relating to our class with our class. I will now examine Feng’s career in relation to Chatterjee’s ideas on post-colonialism, Zhang Yimou’s career as a multimedia artist, and finally, in relation to the notion of a Chinese avant-garde.

Feng’s work cannot be separated from his identity developed by his experience living in a rapidly modernizing China, which for sake of my argument will be defined as a post-colonial country. Along with new waves of artists from countries such as Japan, India, and South Africa, Feng finds himself struggling with the idea of contributing to a global progression of art and the “avant-garde” while being a citizen of a country that is essentially still catching up to the lead of Western Countries[5]. A Chinese Electronic Musician, Dead J, describes it as so: “The West has already developed the music over many decades, and China is suddenly trying to absorb 50 years of experience and history within the last ten years.”[6]

In a process that builds upon what Chatterjee establishes as duality between the “material” and “spiritual” world, Feng is stuck at a unique crossroads. On one level, he is caught within a society that must accept Western authority among the “material” domain of science and modernization, but at the same time believe in a “spiritual” identity that allows its citizens to identify with it’s long-standing culture

[7]. However, Feng, during his time in the Fly, did not want to necessarily accept an identity being defined by “China.” Rather, his identity is more in line with being as close as possible to the opposite of mainstream Chinese culture. Thus, having a divided sense of identity between being neither Western nor Chinese is perhaps a significant reason for the frustration he has against his home country.

Feng allows this frustration to morph into nihilist humor. He revealed in an interview that “I am most interested in using Chinese instruments and revolutionary songs… But I’d definitely refuse to make them sound beautiful; I’d try to make them sound uncomfortable.”[8] Jeroen describes the Fly’s music as presenting a “challenge to stereotypical Chinese sounds” such as the “quietness and deepness” of guzheng[9]. Whether or not Feng was directly trying to attack these traditional arts is less important than the contrast created through the comparison of the two that represent just two of the realms of identity that Feng is caught between. In his later work with Sifenlv, we see that he is better equipped to express his frustration using carefully designed multimedia sensory-overload rushes.

We can see that Feng is not fully rejecting his Chinese roots, but rather to looking to subvert them. He explains the issue quite well himself in an interview: “localisation of Chinese rock implies that the music should express contemporary Chinese society, so in the music such local flavor is a kind of spontaneous flow of your ideas and emotions towards the conditions you are living in. You are Chinese, living in Chinese social situations”[10] Feng realizes that he has little power in changing the fact that he is Chinese, but through expressing his views of contemporary Chinese society, he may be able to expand the boundaries for what is acceptable for being Chinese.

As Chatterjee explains, there is real power in finding an identity that is both true to your home country and the modern world[11]. There is perhaps no artist who was able to succeed in this as well as Zhang Yimou. Zhang’s early films, although very well received in the West almost got him exiled out of his own country. Through a reconciliation with his identity, Zhang Yimou has been able to find a culture that is both modern and Chinese. Now he uses his talents as one of the premier film makers in China and is also a national hero for his work on the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony[12]. While both multimedia artists, to compare Zhang Yimou’s work to Feng Jiangzhou’s is to compare a star on Yang Liping’s level to a someone like Meng Jinghui in his earlier career.  On one hand, Mr. Zhang and Ms. Yang are both masters in providing hit performances that give the crowd the energetic experience they want; on the other, Mr. Feng and Mr. Meng (in his early career) as “avant-garde” artists are looking to explore new possibilities above all else.

Feng’s contribution to Chinese punk rock was to show a new audience whole new possibilities for rock and roll. A mainland Chinese critic in 1997 referred excitedly to the Fly as such: “The Fly has set new standards for Chinese rock and made us realize how hypocritical and senseless the so-called avant-garde rock music was”[13]. However, while it was extreme to Chinese audiences, The Fly has not been able to reach international recognition outside of being a “Chinese” punk band.

This is the same way in which Meng Jinghui and others in the Chinese avant-garde theatre scene have been dismissed as not being real “avant-garde”.  As we discussed in our unit papers, there are all sorts of issues in Eastern artists in fitting into traditionally Western narratives[14]. This was in fact a central argument in Pop Goes the Avant-garde, the author is trying to legitimize new experimental Chinese theatre as on the same level of its Western counterparts. However, as our class discussion on the Western notion of “authenticity” came to show, it is very hard for non-Western acts to become accepted as authentic when performing arts that are not distinct to their cultures[15]. One must only look at the examples of Japanese jazz and hip-hop to understand how under-appreciated these musical legacies are.

         From the perspective of a critic familiar to the development of “noise rock”, the Fly may simply be an echo to Western groups who were able to pioneer a similar sound a good 15 years earlier. The political nature of his music can be matched by the anarcho-punk of the Dutch band The Ex and the use of vulgar lyrics was nothing new for underground work, in fact, a British group called Throbbing Gristle is credited with developing so-called “Industrial music” that was no doubt an influence to Feng. Furthermore, Feng is a part of a third wave of modernizing rock musicians, having to chase down the lead of the US and Western Europe led first wave and a second wave of countries such as Japan. In fact, two of The Fly’s members were Japanese.

In a way, bringing punk to China was too easy for Feng. In a self-deprecating manner, to the Fly’s music being “dirty” saying “Us being dirty, you know, it’s not really that big of a deal. What’s being called dirty here is all over the place in other countries.[16]” To a certain extent, he was just borrowing already established concepts to a new context. Again, we can draw here a parallel to Meng Jinghui. Feng’s affinity for Western contemporary culture allowed him to be one of the first to bring punk rock to China in the same way Meng brought avant-garde theatre to a whole new audience.

Post-colonial relations are complex in their nature. For Chinese artists who affiliate themselves with the West, they may feel themselves falling between the cracks of East and West. In the case of punk, as the local scene dissipated after the first two years, Feng found himself without local support nor appreciation from the West. By moving to digital music, he was able to express himself in new ways as he was no longer dependent on a scene. Interestingly enough, his work with Sifenlv appreciates Chinese aesthetics in ways that he wasn’t able to before. Is this personal struggle with the cultures of home against those of a powerful west not one of the quintessential post-colonial issues of identity?

Feng Jiangzhou, Meng Jinghui and Zhang Yimou all possess an incredible ability to adapt to their current situations and to grow as artists. All three started with their eyes gazing West, but through a reevaluation of their cultural identity, have allowed themselves to embrace a Chinese audience in ways which their art-damages past selves did not. It is this acceptance for one’s own culture that has allowed these artists to gain a footing and stability in a tough market. This also represents one of the possible triumphs for the post-colonial identity. In the cases of all these artists, they have been able to create artworks that are truly both Chinese and modern – the real challenge of growing up as an artist in a post-colonial country.

 


[1] 43 Kloet, Jeroen De. “Hard Scenes” China with a Cut: Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2010.

 

[2] 47 Kloet

[3]  137. Jurriëns, Edwin, and Jeroen De. Kloet. “Cosmopatriot Contaminations.” Cosmopatriots: On Distant Belongings and Close Encounters. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.

[4] 133 Berghuis, Thomas J. “Performance IN New Media 1997-2004.” Performance Art in China. Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2006.

[5] 135 Berghuis.

[6] Youtube Video with English subtitles sponsored by Vice and Intel hosted on The Creator’s Project. The video is largely an interview with electronic musician Dead J.

[7] 6 Chatterjee, Partha. “Whose Imagined Community?” The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993. N. pag. Print.

[8] 52 Kloet.

[9] 55 Kloet.

[10] 58 Kloet.

[11] 8 Chatterjee.

[12] Class Discussion on Zhang Yimou

[13] 51 Kloet.

[14] 86 Ferrari, Rossella. Pop Goes the Avant-garde: Experimental Theatre in Contemporary China.

[15] Class discussion on the Western Concept of “Authenticity”

[16] “Beijing Underground Sound “The Fly”-1/2” YouTube Video.

Translated from the Japanese subtitles. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLSQMhhTBqU